When I look back and try to remember the first time I heard certain Bible stories, I realize how many of them were told to me as if they were fables—stories with a point. There seemed to always be someone in the story to emulate and someone who showed what happened if you didn’t play by God’s rules. The story of the ten lepers is one I remember from way back. Here is the way Luke tells it in his gospel:
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
–(Luke 17:11-19, NRSV)
The moralistic interpretation is obvious, or so it seemed when they told us the story: the one who came back to say thanks is the good guy; don’t be an ingrate like most people. I’m not sure the story is quite that simple.
Jesus was walking the border between Galilee and Samaria when he was approached by ten lepers, who knew a thing or two about being outcast. The border was as close as they could get. To anyone. When they called out to Jesus, he didn’t make a big statement about healing or say anything other than, “Go show yourselves to the priest.” The priest was the one who could declare them healed, that would let them back into society. Since people thought erroneously, that leprosy was contagious, a word from the priest was the only thing that would let them back in. Nine of the ten followed Jesus’ instructions for healing.
One came back to say thanks. A Samaritan. The border of leprosy was not the only one he had trouble crossing. I wonder how the Jewish priests would have responded to his request to be declared clean and able to rejoin society. When they all had leprosy, the other nine had not minded hanging out with him. What about now? When it came to belonging, he was still going to be without a lunch table in any Galilean high school, yet he was thankful to be healed, so he came back to tell Jesus since that would be a more meaningful exchange of words than anything the priest might have to say.
In one of our trips through Louisiana, Ginger and I stopped at the Hansen’s Disease Center in Carville. Hansen’s Disease is the modern name for leprosy. She had visited there with a semester missions assignment between college and seminary. We were there in the early nineties, just before it closed. I remember how quiet and sacred the space felt. The buildings and the grounds felt as though they held the stories of those who had been sequestered there with deep reverence. The gravestones in the cemetery had only patient numbers on them. No one had ever come to say, “Go show yourselves to the priest.” Along the way, a treatment was found that allows the one hundred and twenty five people a year that still contract it in our country to get help, but the folks who lived and died at Carville knew little of that. They lived trapped and forgotten lives.
Maybe the man came back to say thanks because, for a moment, he didn’t feel trapped or forgotten. For a moment, he felt whole. Human. Himself. Noticed. Even loved.
Luke says Jesus turned him into an object lesson for a moment: “Did only the foreigner come back to say thanks,” he said in his crowd-on-the-hillside voice. Then he looked down and changed his tone, speaking directly to the man: “Get up. Your faith has made you well.”
The words are interesting because he had already been healed of his leprosy. The other nine didn’t get to the synagogue only to find Jesus had played a cruel joke because they never said thank you. Hardly anyone Jesus healed ever said thank you. Some went walking and leaping and praising God, but not many say thanks. So what in the man was healed by his faith?
Early in their marriage, my brother and sister-in-law lived in Akron, Ohio. My brother’s barber was a man who had come from Lebanon as a refugee back when Lebanon was much like Syria is today. He and his family literally had to flee the country with only the clothes they were wearing, leaving behind a successful business, a home, their lives. In Akron, he had found work as a barber. My brother said any time he saw the man and said, “How are you today?” the man answered, “Grateful.”
His faith had made him well.
This weekend, Ginger and drove up to Boston to see our former foster daughter. She is Paraguayan by birth. While we were there, she wanted us to watch a documentary on the Landfill Harmonic Orchestra in Ascension, Paraguay. It is what it sounds like—an orchestra made up of kids who live around the garbage dump. One man teaches them to play and conducts the orchestra. Another man makes instruments out of oil cans and other things he finds in the garbage. The wife of the man who makes the instruments was interviewed. When asked about her life, she spoke of their house, the pigs and chickens they had, and her husband, who no longer had to work at the dump to find recyclable materials to sell. Then she said, “I don’t think my life could be any better.”
Her faith had made her well.
The nine who went into town as they were told did nothing wrong. Yet I have to wonder if they equated their healing with things being “made right.” It was about damn time they got to join society like everyone else. They had been wronged by leprosy. They deserved their place in society. Think of all of the years they had lost. I don’t know that I would have felt any differently. As I said, they did nothing wrong.
Being healed of leprosy was a big deal, and the man who came back to say thanks understood it was not the whole deal. He didn’t deserve the healing anymore than he deserved the disease. He was still stuck on the outskirts of a border town. Most of his life was not going to be changed, and what was changed by Jesus mattered enough to say thank you. Like the barber, he was grateful. Like the woman on the edge of the garbage dump, it was as good as it was going to get.
The more I think about this story, the more I keep thinking of Nelson Mandela getting out of prison after twenty-seven years and choosing not to retaliate. He chose to be grateful. His faith had made him well.
I wish thankfulness were more contagious.
Next week: Jesus and blind people.